He lights up a cigarette the old-fashioned way; with a matchstick. Like men did during the Cold War era, with their backs to the wind, protecting the flickering flame from death. Even though he’s only in his mid-thirties he already has an aged face, like he went to war with the universe and came back, licking his wounds, wondering what the war was all about in the first place. The face of a man coming into a realisation that he has not fully grasped nor is he even ready to embrace. He has thin eyebrows that look like lines that someone has been painstakingly erasing, their tenacity finally starting to pay off, leaving in their place a dark sliver, a faint stroke. He had asked me to, “protect my identity,” a request – I suspect – that is not driven by the need for anonymity but rather for self-preservation – he doesn’t want anybody to know who he is before he himself fully knows who he has become. It’s easy to like him, to empathise with him like one tends to do with tortured people, because with them you don’t reach rock bottom, you keep digging and digging and when you look up you have lost sight of the sky and you have become engulfed in their darkness.
He blows smoke away from me and says, “I don’t want to say that I was molested as a child for two reasons.” He squints down below at a leathered delivery guy, resting his bike on a stand. We are seated on two old ratty chairs on his balcony. Hand me downs. “One, is that it has the danger of taking away from my story. It’s easy to reduce my existence, my choices, everything else, to this fact. And second, I have a problem with the word ‘molested’ even though I haven’t found a word to replace it.” He says it seems “melodramatic,” as far as words go. I then offer that perhaps the word makes him feel weak and he doesn’t want to be cast as weak. He contemplates this with a grin and says, “I just think there are people who have been molested and it’s more serious than what happened to me.”
“E.g.?” I ask, slightly embarrassed to be this person who prefers to say “e.g.” as opposed to “for example.”
“Raped as a child. Raped as an adult. Held in captivity as a slave and raped.” He says darkly. “I think there are far more qualified sins that deserve the word molested.”
What happened to him was that between the ages of six and around nine his aunt used to stroke his penis, or aid him in masturbation. “Mom was never around, she was always off trading; going to Kampala to buy goods, back to Kenya for a few days or weeks, off again to Tanzania, back again, for a few weeks, off again to God-knows-where, buying and selling. Busy. She had shops that she ran, she gave us a comfortable life. She was working hard for us. We were unsupervised even though we never lacked.”
“I don’t know where that dude is.” He says in a way that closes the door to any further investigation of that story. It’s like asking someone if they eat crabs and they say, “No, they make my tongue swell.” What are you going to ask after? So, we don’t talk about “that dude,” – that door is fastened shut and that act, in itself, is a story.
“She was a kind aunt, this monster, the most favourite aunt if you will,” he says, “kind, very loving, responsible and all that. My mom trusted her. We all did. I honestly didn’t think it was such a big deal at the beginning. I was confused, yes, but I actually thought it was some crazy gesture of love, you know. I thought she actually loved me more than she loved my other siblings, or even my cousins. That I was her favourite, which was why she was jerking me off. The favoured one, you know? But of course you grow older and you start thinking, aii, hapana, this story here isn’t normal. And then you start avoiding her because seeing her makes you feel very shameful and dirty and sinful. You know?” The house suddenly echoes loudly with the ringing of his doorbell. A big ding dong. He gets up and drags his feet across the almost empty living room with two sofas, a big screen television and a coffee table in the form of a pallet. When he comes back he places a bottle of gin and two glasses on the table. The world now is inhabited by two sorts of people; folk who drink gin and folk who don’t understand why.
“You do gin?” He asks, wringing the top of the bottle as he opens it.
“Not really, but I’m also off booze.”
“January- I stay clean and sober.”
“Oh, dry January. Are you drinking only smoothies now?” He’s mocking me, the ass.
“Yah. And eating oranges. And sleeping early,” I say.
He chuckles as he pours himself a large portion of it and raises the glass. “Cheers.”
Cracks began to appear in his teenage years. He was unusually hypersexual. The type that would hump a desk. “As young as I was in form two I would be sneaking out of the school to go find girls in the neighbourhood to sleep with,” He says. He attended a boarding school. “It’s all I thought about man, sex. I’d be in class and all I’d think about is how I’d leave the class and go masturbate. Weekends I’d sneak out of school at dusk, climbing over fences to go to the small village-like bars around our school to go shag these girls in the bars who were much older than me. I must have been, what, 15 years? I was sleeping with women who were in their 30s already or late 20s. It didn’t help that I had money.” Sips drink, makes a face. “When you have a mom who is always away looking for money to provide and give the best for her children, she overcompensates for her absence and I guess the absence of your father by giving you too much pocket money. I suspect my mom always felt like it was her fault my dad was not in our lives…..” He chuckles and reaches for another cigarette from the packet on the table. His third one, I note, pettily.
The first match doesn’t light it but the second one does. “ So anyway, I had money. Which means when I walked into that bar, in my school trousers and a leather jacket, the women there would gather around me and I’d buy them beers and they’d tell me their problems and I’d lend them money and sleep with them. It doesn’t matter if you are underage, money will get you laid.”
Their school had some sort of a career counsellor who doubled up as a counsellor. An ageing man who never removed his coat. The joke in the school was that he was as old as the library. And the library was old. Nobody visited his office because he went to a high school where most students already knew what they wanted to be. “In my third form this old man found me in the school dispensary being patched up after the school fence had ripped off my thigh while I was sneaking through it the previous night. He didn’t say a word but the next day he sent for me and we met in his office and he told me that he knew that I was sneaking out of school. That he frequently drank in the neighbourhood bars and that he knew all about my escapades. We started talking, him asking me questions about home and shit and man, I started crying. I don’t even know where those tears came from but I just broke down a good one and I told him, the very first person, I told him about my aunt. He suggested that I join sports. So I joined rugby and I was aggressive as eff. I broke a collarbone, snapped a knee, got a number of concussions, almost broke my neck once. I was good at it because I was angry or something but this old man, man, he was always there, holding my hand, watching me. Like a father. Or a grandfather. ”
“Did you stop sneaking out?”
“No,” he smirks, “But I reduced the frequency. I finished high school and miraculously passed well enough to go to the University where I played more rugby and came out with a useless degree.”
Fast forward to 2017. He’s married with two girls. He’s doing business. His wife had gone through two very difficult pregnancies – the last one almost killing her – and the doctor had advised them not to have any more children. He had wanted a boy but those ambitions seemed like they would never happen. Then something very odd happened. “Someone in our high school Whatsapp group shared a Facebook profile picture of a young boy who was the spitting image of me. It was a joke in the group that the boy was me and we all laughed about it.” But it wasn’t a joke to him, he was taken aback by the uncanny resemblance. “So I inboxed him and long story short it turned out that he was a boy I fathered in fourth form when I would sneak out of high school to sleep with the village girls.” Turns out that when the girl got pregnant, she was 21, she was shipped out to live with other relatives far from there to avoid embarrassment.
“Do you have a picture I can see?” I ask him partly because I’m curious to see the resemblance but also because I don’t want to be tricked by tall tales. He pats his pockets for his phone, does not find it, then gets up to go look for it in the house. He’s one of those people who leave their mobile phones all over the place so when you call them they find your missed call after three hours. Defeats the whole idea of the phone being a ‘mobile’ phone.
When he comes back he hands me his phone. “That was me and him when I found him and we reconnected.” It’s a picture of a boy of about 11 or so who could indeed pass for his son. They are seated on a sofa, side by side, like they are waiting to be served tea in a house that doesn’t belong to them. “I wanted him to join us, be part of our family but my wife wouldn’t hear of it,” he says, taking back the phone. “She said that I wasn’t home enough to even take care of my own children and she didn’t want the burden of having to solely take care of another boy she didn’t know. A teenager, no less.”
“What was going on? Why weren’t you at home?”
He shrugs. He places a matchstick in his mouth. “Demons, tu. I think I was going through stuff,” he pauses and sips his drink. He then says that he tried being a present father but “external factors” couldn’t allow him to be adequately engaged.
“Where is your son now?”
“With the mother in the village, but I plan to bring him to live with me when I settle down.”
“What does settling down look like?”
“I don’t know, when I am able to take care of someone else better than I take care of myself.”
I ask him how he ended up living in the apartment we are in on Naivasha road.
“My aunt fell sick,” he tells me, “the one who used to touch me. She fell very sick. Breast cancer. Then they found out it had gotten into her lungs and things. So she died. She died in a small hospital in a small town. I didn’t go for the funeral because I was in Rwanda that time, you know chasing paper. I didn’t care anyway. We hadn’t spoken more than five words in so long, like two decades. She was a stranger to me.” He taps the cigarette against his ashtray which is a plastic disposable cup with water. “I thought I was finally free from her. I thought she had died with the ghosts, her ghosts. But then I started getting very angry and desperate. I started blaming myself for not having the guts to confront her. I felt that her death had now completely rendered me a prisoner of my past.”
“You couldn’t confront it.” I say.
“I hit the bottle a good one,” he drops the cigarette in the paper cup and it fizzles and dies.
“I had two children that I wasn’t giving enough time to. I was caught up in my regret. I felt like I could never ever be free of this sin. Yeah, that’s how it felt like. You know how you are baptised and your sins are all forgiven? I wished for something like that, a place a priest would dip me in and I would come out anew without that shit that happened to me in my childhood. I became aggressive at work and at home. I’d get angry very fast. My children feared being around me because I was always in a foul mood. I spent too much time at the bar. My wife and I fought constantly. Those fights that get the neighbours calling the cops?”
“No, tell me one incident.” I say.
He says it was the only one. He had come home late and drunk and had woken his girls up and started talking to them and his wife was telling him off, telling him he was crazy, that he should let the girls sleep. That he was a drunk and a punk. Then a screaming match ensued in the living room from the children’s bedroom and the children started crying, no, wailing, so the domestic help slipped out and went to the neighbours to ask for help. The neighbour called the cops who came twenty minutes later in a land rover. “Cops at your door? Oh, that sobers you some,” he chuckles. “You hear that cops are chauvinists and all but I tell you that when they came they asked his wife, “are you feeling in danger?” and she looked at me and said, “yes” and that was it. Two of them immediately pounced on me, twisted my hand on my back and cuffed me. My children stood in the doorway, watching their father get cuffed by men in dark overcoats and hats. I think if there ever is a moment I hit rock bottom as a father, it was that moment for me. I don’t think they will ever forget that moment and it pains me, fills me with a great sense of failure. You know?” He sighs and lights another cigarette.
“You smoke a lot.” I offer.
“You and my mother can get along,” He says grinning but also meaning it. “I tried to quit and then I couldn’t stop. It helps me with stress. Or I think it does. It will probably kill me. But what’s left?”
That night I slept in the cell. The next morning his wife came to get him out. He recalls that she was wearing one of those Winnie Mandela headgears, which was a sign that she wasn’t going to take any more of his shit. She grew up with a father who drank too much and harrased everybody in the house and when they had started dating she was categorical; if you drink too much, I will leave. “She bailed me out, but under one condition, that I’d pack my shit and leave because I was a bad husband and an even worse father.” He says smoking furiously. “I said, cool, get me out of here. I thought I’d convince her once I was out but when I got to the house I found two of her brothers sitting eating fruit. These guys were people who knew me and we were good friends but they called me outside and said, “Just leave, work things out from outside.” So I left. And she’s never let me back in. Which is okay, because I think my daughters are more at peace now.”
“You miss them?”
“Yeah. I do.” He says. “ When you don’t have a family, you become so rudderless. It’s like your roots have been yanked out of the soil and you are a tree floating in the galaxy, like this,” he rotates his burning cigarette before him like it’s floating in space, “You just make some drastic decisions and you keep sliding further down. I think I’m still caught up in that childhood and I don’t know how to break free from it. You know? It feels like it has defined me and where I’m going.” Pause.
“What do you think your wife, or ex-wife thinks of you as a father or a man, for that matter?”
He laughs then doesn’t answer for a while.
“She thinks I’m lazy and irresponsible,” he says, “she once said that I will never amount to anything until I stop blaming people for my problems. She says I’m not a good influence on my children and they are better off without me. That I’m no different than her own father.”
“Is she right?”
“No,” he says after a pause. “Of course not.”
“Are you a good father?”
Another pause. “ I’m a trying father.”
“How are you trying?”
“I try to see them, to be with them, but she won’t let me.”
You have a fatherhood or motherhood story? Buzz me with a synopsis. (This doesn’t mean 2,000 words and photos), on [email protected]